Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Civic Engagement

Sermon given on Sunday, September 9 by Rabbi Eli Freedman

HaYom Harat Olam; today is the birthday of the world. Tonight, Erev Rosh Hashanah, we begin the New Year of 5779. And tomorrow morning, in the words of the song we just sang:

Let the sun rise,

On a new day,

To warm the land,

To warm our hearts,

To warm our hands.

Let the sun rise on a new day. What a powerful message for this New Year and for everyday of our lives. We have the ability, each new day, in every sunrise, to warm the land, to warm our hearts, to warm our hands; to make the world a better place. This is the message of the High Holy Days.

But all too often, in today’s 24 hour news cycle, it is hard to remember that the sun will rise on a new day tomorrow. I have heard from many of you this year about about your concerns; overwhelmed with the brokenness in our world; left with nothing but feelings of hopelessness.

There are so many problems that seem out of reach. The Supreme Court, the genocide in Syria, world hunger; they feel insurmountable. And while there are many in our community working on issues across the globe, from Washington to the Middle East, it sometimes feels like we are making little difference and we become disheartened.

We can, however, make an immediate, noticeable, lasting, difference for the neighbor who is food insecure, or the child who is reading far below grade level, or the refugee in need of babysitting while taking ESL classes. None of these is extraordinary. None would get 500 of your friends to take to Facebook. But these small and ongoing repairs are a path to building community, and ultimately to changing the world. As it says on the inscription of my tallit:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

I recently saw the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” If there is one thing that Fred Rogers understood better than anyone, it is the power of community. The idea of being a good neighbor was central to Mister Rogers’ ideology. “Life is for service,” he wrote, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught me and an entire generation that civic engagement, taking an active role in our communities, being a good neighbor, can change our world.

Fred Rogers was a minister. Although he never sought to push his own religious views on anyone, it is clear that his ideology of civic engagement was rooted in his faith. Rogers’s theology can be traced to the biblical notion of “neighbor.”

As it says in our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah portion, K’doshim, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” While the biblical use of “neighbor” was probably defined by proximate geography or by religion, for Mister Rogers neighbor was a moral term.

Similarly, at the 1963 March on Washington, Rabbi Joachim Prinz famously said, “Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity”

Yet today, the notion of a neighborhood in which everyone belongs has been replaced by divisiveness, exclusion, and seclusion. Rogers was well aware of our own propensity towards isolationism — an early episode of his show featured King Friday, the ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, attempting to build a wall around his kingdom to protect it from change. Mister Rogers’ theology was radical in 1968 when his show debuted, and it remains radical today. That’s why it resonated. That’s why it’s still necessary.

There was another religious leader writing almost 2000 years earlier whose radical theology was also rooted in the power of community – Rabbi Hillel. Like us, Hillel lived in interesting times. During the reign of King Herod, life in Israel was not easy. Hillel saw corruption, inequality, persecution, and senseless violence firsthand. We can imagine Hillel and his contemporaries becoming overwhelmed with the problems in of their world; paralyzed by the magnitude of the injustices around them.

But rather than just retreat from the world, Hillel had a simple answer:

אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר

Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirkei Avot 2:4)

Just like Mister Rogers’ invitation, “Won’t you be my neighbor,” Hillel’s words call us to engage in our community. Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, in his Social Justice Commentary of Pirkei Avot, elucidates this verse, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” writing:

One may understand this teaching as requiring submission, obedience, conformity, and acquiescing to dogma. But this cannot be the case, since the essence of being a Jew is cultivating oneself to swim against the tide. We must be individuals of struggle rather than a people of simple acceptance. Nonetheless, we cannot be anarchist or libertarian. Judaism requires that we build communities and societal systems to support one another.

“Do not separate yourself from the community.” But Hillel’s words do not end there. In the very next verse, Hillel continues:

וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ

In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be a mentsch. (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

Hillel’s words feel so relevant today. It sometimes feels like everyone is acting immorally and we have become acclimated into thinking that this kind of behavior is okay. It is far too easy to become normalized to the immorality and to want to just give up.

But Hillel says, “No! When faced with an unjust world, strive to be a mentsch.” Although he never makes the connection, I wonder if Hillel was speaking about the biblical character, Noah. We read in Genesis:

נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹֽרֹתָיו

Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation. (Genesis 6:9)

Why end with the phrase, “b’dorotav – in his generation?” This modifier, “in his generation,” can be read two very different ways. In one reading, we could say that Noah was just ‘meh.’ Objectively speaking, he really wasn’t that righteous – it was only because everyone else on earth at the time were so wicked that by comparison Noah was a real stand-up guy.

Conversely, we can also read the phrase, “in his generation,” in light of Hillel’s statement, to say that Noah was truly exceptional. To be righteous and blameless when everyone around you is acting inhumane is even more difficult. What a powerful message. And one that many in our community already know so well.

I want to tell you about some of our congregants who are already working to strengthen our neighborhood and give back to the world in the face of inhumanity all around them.

We have a group of congregants who have been cooking brunch for the residents of Bethesda Project’s North Broad shelter on the second Sunday of every month for many years. And this past year, we began a new project called Hunger Response where we cook meals in our Rodeph Shalom kitchen to donate to the shelter.

Many of you already know about our MENTOR program, a cadre of loyal volunteers who go into schools to tutor. A volunteer once told me about bringing her fourth grader a book on animals, since she knew it was an interest of his. It was the first book this little boy had ever owned.

I recently met with a bat mitzvah student who is volunteering at HIAS, babysitting refugee children while their parents are in ESL classes. The student told me how meaningful the project is, as she is not only helping families in need but also forming lasting bonds with these children who have been through so much.

Our congregants understand what it means to engage in community, to be good neighbors; and we as a congregation are better for it. In their book, “Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America,” lay/clergy partners, Judy Seldin-Cohen and Rabbi Judy Schindler make this very argument.

In one of my favorite sections of the book, they relate a well known story about volunteerism and advocacy. They tell the story of a villager who sees a stranger thrashing in the current of the nearby river. Without stopping to think, the villager jumps into the river and pulls the stranger to safety. Soon a schedule of lifeguards is established, and every few days another villager is hailed as a local hero after pulling another stranger from the river. As more and more resources are devoted to rescues, finally someone stands up and says, “Maybe we should travel upstream and see why so many people are falling into the river.”

The message is simple – we can line the proverbial river with lifeguards, pulling out strangers who fall into the current of hard time. And we can also travel upstream, enlisting our community to remedy the sources of this suffering. The hope is that volunteering is a first step that naturally leads to looking upstream.

When cooking meals for residents at the Bethesda North shelter, we travel upstream to think about the root causes of homelessness and food insecurity. When we know the name and the story of a homeless person, we are empowered to advocate on his behalf.

When volunteering with our MENTOR program, we travel upstream and notice the inadequate funding of our public schools. When we know the name and the story of an underserved student, we are empowered to advocate on her behalf.

And after spending countless after-school hours with refugee children, we travel upstream and feel compelled to advocate for refugee and immigration justice in our country.

I think Hillel and the sages (read: Mister Rogers) push us to act locally so that our actions might lead us to global advocacy.

We have an amazing opportunity this spring to put these sentiments into action at the Reform movement’s biennial social justice leadership conference, the Consultation of Conscience, on May 19th – 21st. Led by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the RAC, our movements advocacy arm in Washington, D.C., the Consultation empowers congregations through leadership development; opportunities for network and community building; and active dialogue culminating in an afternoon of advocacy on Capitol Hill.

Past speakers at the Consultation have included activists and leaders like: Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, who has worked tirelessly to promote the cause of prison and criminal justice reform.

Our vision is to take a whole busload from Rodeph Shalom. It will be a chance to live out our faith in the public square; to take Hillel’s words of civic engagement and make them a reality.

But we don’t have to wait until May to look upstream. This fall we are working once again with our multi-faith community organizing group, POWER – Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild on a voter engagement drive. Keep a lookout for opportunities to register voters, phone bank, or canvass in our neighborhood in the coming weeks.

When Fred Rogers briefly came out of retirement to host a TV special after September 11, he said: “We are all called to be ‘Tikkun Olam,’ repairers of creation.” This was quite a departure for Rogers, as he never preached religion on his show –  only kindness and equality.

So why mention ‘tikkun olam,’ the Jewish imperative to repair the world from its brokenness?

Perhaps it was Rogers’ unfailing optimism which connected him to this Jewish value. Even in the darkest moments, he would look for a silver lining.

“When I was a boy,” Rogers recalled, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

In a moment, we are going to continue in our service with Avinu Malkeinu, THE prayer of the High Holy Day season. We ask God to hear our voice, to have compassion on us, to halt the onslaught of sickness, violence, and hunger, to halt the reign of those who cause pain and terror and ultimately to renew for us a year of goodness.

But we know that God does not work in isolation. And so we ask You, God, Avinu Malkeinu, Almighty and Merciful:

Help us to find the helpers

Help us to be the helpers

Help us to pull our neighbors out of the river

Help us look upstream

And help us remember that tomorrow

The sun WILL rise,

On a new day.

Shana Tova.